Labor Voices: Spend time teaching, not (COVID) standardized testing

February 10, 2021
By PAULA HERBART/President – Michigan Education Association

If one positive thing comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be the crystallization for millions of Americans about what in our lives is truly important. For students and educators, standardized tests do not make the list.

That’s why it was welcome news when the Michigan Department of Education applied for a federal waiver allowing this year’s statewide assessments to be canceled, as was done last spring when the crisis began. We hope the Biden Administration will approve that waiver quickly and the Legislature will take action to call off this spring’s tests.

In a year fraught with peril, disruption, and stress, neither educators nor students would benefit from the hours, days, and weeks of lost learning time required to administer high-stakes standardized tests amid an ongoing global health crisis.

Right now, educators need to focus their limited time with students on teaching – not testing.

In the best of times, the M-STEP (Michigan Student Test of Education Progress) and MME (Michigan Merit Exam) measure little more than the socioeconomic status of communities – as results typically correlate closely with family income and education levels. These test scores serve little academic purpose, arriving months later with minimal context for teachers to meaningfully use in helping students close learning gaps.

Of course, these are not “the best of times.” Students, families and educators are navigating new ways of learning while trying to prioritize safety for our communities. Rather than providing a real measure of learning, standardized test data provides little more than a blunt instrument to wield against educators working harder than ever to meet student needs.

Educators are constantly measuring student learning in ways to help guide their work. We’re not afraid of a good test – to be clear, we invented them! But better tools exist than statewide standardized testing to understand where students need help academically.

Local benchmark testing – as required by bipartisan state law passed last summer for this pandemic school year – and teacher-designed assessments are used by educators every day to adjust and customize instruction for students.

Adjusting lesson plans and providing extra support to struggling students based on assessment is at the core of what professional educators do.

High-stakes standardized tests don’t help that work, however. Instead, they take up valuable time we need to address delays in learning. They increase stress for students and educators – the last thing we need right now given the burnout caused by pandemic learning challenges.

In recent MEA surveys, our members have called for less emphasis on standardized testing as test scores have taken on outsized importance in driving instruction to the detriment of less easily tested skills and attributes – such as creativity, problem-solving, and citizenship.

Additionally, that data is unfairly used to evaluate teachers – another area the Legislature needs to address by reducing the role of standardized testing in that process.

During 20 years of “test-and-punish” driven policy, standardized testing has not driven improvement – except in the growing recognition that educators and students need support, not reprimands.

We need resources for educator recruitment, development, and retention to address nationwide shortages. We need investment in infrastructure to close the digital divide. We need equity in funding formulas to give more help to those students who are most in need.

Perhaps that understanding will be another positive outcome of this dark chapter in our history.

In the meantime, educators look to the federal and state governments to call off COVID spring standardized testing in favor of the other meaningful measures that are happening every day in our schools, so we can focus limited time with students on pressing academic and emotional needs.

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